In conversation with Vera Mey

Vera Mey: I haven’t been living here for a few years but I have been interested and trying to keep up with the discussion. I may be a little behind in the conversation here. I’m not sure where it’s at.

Amy Weng: The thing is I don’t think there has been much conversation happening. I am aware of the conversations that you were involved in. There was a panel discussion organised by Liyen Chong a few years ago, and prior to that I’m aware of artists like Yuk King Tan and Denise Kum who were very active in Auckland. Since then, the conversations have shifted, and there has been less of a concerted effort by local Asian artists to define a position of difference. Perhaps it’s not helpful to think of an ‘Asian art community’ but I wonder what the alternative is.

VM: It’s hard because the Asian New Zealand arts community is a really diverse community in itself. Because Asia is so diverse, with so many languages, religions, cultures, as well as different hierarchies- trying to transfer that here in New Zealand is difficult. There is almost this tension- not tension within the community itself- but there is a perceived difference between older migrants and newer migrants. I also don’t know how to address this because of my own personal issue with the term ‘Asian New Zealander.’ I don’t know how this functions as a category of community beyond an ethnic signifier and I think these umbrella terms like ‘Asian New Zealander’ dilute specificity for a cultural category that is so encompassing and so big. I’m not sure how to address that complexity within that framework. On the other hand I also believe this term is extremely useful in helping identify that this community does somewhat exist and is a specific cultural category and experience exclusive to this context in Aotearoa.

At ST PAUL St Gallery, there are attempts at dialoguing with practitioners from Asia. This was evidenced by the ST PAUL St Gallery Curatorial Symposium I organised in 2013 and co-developed with Shanghai based independent curator Biljana Ciric in which curators and researchers who were actively building discourses from Asia were invited. This included Patrick Flores from Vargas Museum in The Philippines, Seng Yu Jin who now works at the National Gallery Singapore, Simon Soon who at the time was still completing his PhD on left-leaning artists’ groups from Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, and Vietnamese performance artist Tran Luong. Of course these do not directly engage with Asian New Zealand practitioners per se but were an attempt at a kind of dialogue between here and there as a starting point.

AW: Late last year Auckland Council released their Arts and Culture Strategic Plan and there was a lot of talk of Auckland being this super diverse city- which I think it is- but I was quite critical of that because it seems to enforce a cultural policy without there being a push from the arts community or perhaps a grassroots movement towards trying to find a voice. I agree that having a collective community for Asian New Zealanders is problematic but I found that gesture almost like jumping the gun.

VM: I lived in Singapore for a few years and it is very entrenched within policies of multiculturalism which I also found very problematic because it was state driven to the extent where it could become very limiting and very ghettoising. Again, although there are issues with the structure, I also admired the recognition and initiatives that comes with this kind of categorisation. I think it’s always hard in those cases because you want a space carved out but then- and this is always the problem with community consultation- it becomes: who becomes the voice of that community?

Within the arts community and as an Asian person I’ve always felt a connection to or understanding of other Asian people no matter if they are a similar kind of ‘Asian’ to me or not – as in they don’t necessarily have to be from the same place or the same ethnicity. It’s a cultural category that takes on its own life and being Asian here means something very different to what being Asian in Singapore means or being Asian in Indonesia or being Asian in China means. Being Asian in New Zealand isn’t about ethnic specificity, it seems to be more of a cultural experience.

At the same time I think it is really important to carve out that space and as problematic as that is, if it helps to carve out that space it’s really positive. It’s just complicated.

AW: That’s something that I have been thinking about too. If I were to give a very personal frame of reference, I was born in New Zealand, and I went to bilingual schools all throughout my school education, and the Māori world view was always integral to my upbringing. And I’ve been wondering where do people like me fit into that? I know that is a very selfish thing to say, but whenever there is a discussion about identity or cultural belonging in this country it is always between Pākehā and Māori, or Pākehā and Pacific Islanders. It seems like there isn’t even a place for Asian New Zealanders in these conversations. Maybe that is because of New Zealand being a bicultural nation and so much of our cultural identity has been shaped by these two opposing positions that there isn’t really space for anything else.

VM: I agree with this, but I also think it’s about timing and for me the issue with making space is to not take it away from someone else or another group that also is carving out their voice in the dialogue. I’m fine with it being taken away from more dominant discourses but for me the problem is when it’s potentially taking space away from other positions of alterity – Māori or Pacific space- because defining those spaces is still very important. It felt to me that the only way to make space was adding to the oppositional space or third space or peripheral position, and from that end I don’t think there is enough room yet because that Pākehā space and discourse can be quite dominant and impenetrable.

But I like to think of tangata tiriti as being a way of being here by way of the treaty. Obviously you want to be a part of that conversation, but how do you do that without taking it away from people who really need that space? Or how do you take space away from dominant discourses that could make more room for others?

AW: One thing that I have noticed, and I think you did mention it before, is this manoeuvring of New Zealand into a wider Asian-Pacific framework. And I wonder if that is really helpful because I do think that having cultural or regional specificity is important. But how do you see it? How do you add to that space instead of taking space away from Māori or Pacific artists?

VM: I’ve only really seen it done in places like Australia and even then it isn’t perfect. I think in Australia there is a really intentional policy of looking towards Asia. It can almost be read as quite contrived. I would love to say that New Zealand should be part of a wider Asia-Pacific discourse, and I think that it is inevitably because of its geographic positioning, but it’s hard to not do that by way of tokenism. And even though things like APT celebrate art from Asia and the Pacific and Australia, it can come across as opportunistic in this positioning.

It sounds good on paper but when you see it in practice it’s really displaced. The weekend that APT opened last year was the same weekend that there was an Australia First march, which was right-wing anti-immigration fascists, marching next to the art gallery. On the one hand, they are investing in this vision of the Asia-Pacific which is great, and on the other, there are white supremacists co-existing in the same geography and that for me is really fucked up. The conversations don’t overlap in any way. Some would perhaps argue that this is a cause to insist on why initiatives like APT should persist and continue to be important.

AW: I feel in those instances it’s trying to push a very nationalistic agenda and maybe trying to downplay some of the internal conflicts that are within each nation, and especially within the Asia-Pacific where you’ve got a long history of migration. And not just in nations like New Zealand or Australia, but also in Malaysia or Singapore or Hong Kong. I think it is opportunistic and akin to aligning yourself with what you think will be most strategically advantageous. Like saying that China is going to be a super-power and trying to have a piece of that pie.

There’s that which I feel uncomfortable with, and there’s the fact that it’s saying there is this ‘other’ which isn’t a part of our community, but can be leveraged. It’s like saying you want to be a part of the Asia-Pacific but then disregarding your own Asian history.

VM: And that’s what I feel uncomfortable with. Why don’t you look inside first.

AW: Exactly.

VM: It seems like most attempts are going to be inadequate which, perhaps, is important- having productive failures. And I think its going to get more complicated, because as you say China is a super power and it’s not just going to be a simple binary of ‘coloniser’ and ‘the oppressed.’ We are dealing with a territory that is actively neo-colonising too, through trade or other power relations so it’s only going to get more messy and more complicated.

AW: Looking back on our recent history there were instances when artists were able to create moments of visibility. But that momentum- and those conversations- just haven’t been sustained. Is it because the community is just not interested in these issues or not wanting to play an active part in it or do you think it is something else?

VM: I think the conversations have to be driven by people who understand the issues. Maybe by other Asian New Zealanders, maybe we just have to keep insisting on it? The conversation has to be sustained by us. But I’m not sure why the conversation isn’t sustained. Maybe there is a level of exhaustion.

AW: It’s just dispersed.

VM: I think that’s it. I don’t think it is a lack of interest but how do we sustain the conversation and make sure that the conversation isn’t repetitive? I still don’t think we know how to reconcile 90s identity politics for any group, not just for Asian New Zealanders. It’s how to keep that conversation beyond ‘we are marginalised’ and saying ‘we need a voice.’ And nobody’s figured it out- sometimes art is very fast with things and sometimes it’s really not. Maybe they’re like me and they leave to also try and be part of other conversations that keep the energy going.

AW: I spoke to someone who said that maybe Asian New Zealanders just need to own our cultural identity a bit more in terms of understanding and embracing Māori culture.

VM: Oh, definitely. I really think that Asians in New Zealand need to publicly embrace Māori culture and Pacific culture because that is where the empowerment and specificity of experiences comes from. It won’t be by becoming white. I think this is a whole other issue with Asian New Zealanders- the assimilation is often seen as more towards the dominant culture rather than the subcultures and I definitely think that’s an issue. I think if we are more participatory in issues around the treaty, that would definitely help.

AW: I guess one example that I can think of is in Canada. The local Asian community there identify strongly with the indigenous population, with first nations peoples, and that has been productive for them because it has helped them to form their own sense of cultural identity in relation to the indigenous peoples. I found that quite interesting because, as you say, it’s not about trying to identify with the dominant culture, it’s about trying to build a sense of place around an understanding of an indigenous world view.

VM: Completely and I think that is really amazing. Personally I think that is the way to go, and I’ve been really inspired by things like the Bandung ’55 Non-Aligned Movement where leaders from Asia and Africa got together in 1955 and tried to determine this global south of anti-colonial movement. At the end of his speech in the conference India’s first Prime Minister and leader of the Independence movement Jawaharlal Nehru says something along the lines of Australia and New Zealand coming closer to Asia. I’m not sure on the specifics but considering it was an anti-colonial movement I can only assume he was directing this towards positions of indigeneity and alterity here and in Australia. That’s where I think the strength lies. It’s building this other space together.

Vera Mey is currently an independent curator. She was part of the founding team of the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore, a contemporary art research centre of Nanyang Technological University (NTU) as Curator, Residencies. Since it’s inauguration in January 2014, the Residencies Programme has brought together artists, curators and writers in a research driven residency with particular emphasis on artists from Singapore and Southeast Asia alongside artists from the rest of the world. She was Assistant Director of AUT University’s ST PAUL St Gallery in Auckland, New Zealand from 2011 to 2014. Her last project there was co curated with Erin Gleeson from Sa Sa Bassac, Phnom Penh called FIELDS: an itinerant inquiry across the Kingdom of Cambodia (2013). In 2015-16 she joins Ambitious Alignments: New Histories of Southeast Asian Art, a research initiative of the Getty Foundation. She is currently on the curatorial team of SEA Project an exhibition due to open in July 2017 at the Mori Art Museum Japan and National Art Centre Tokyo. She will undertake a PhD at SOAS, University of London commencing in September 2016.